Alan Fair, executive director of the Oil Sands Tailings Consortium and former R & D manager with Syncrude, highlighted some of the ways oil companies are managing fine tailings.
Toronto—Oil sands veteran Alan Fair said the industry is working to speed the pace of tailing ponds reclamation.
Speaking to an audience of more than 200 sustainability stakeholders, manufacturing and supply chain executives at the Carbon Economy Summit in Toronto on June 6, Fair highlighted some of the efforts underway to manage the increasing volume of fine tailings.
“We’ll take ideas from anywhere,” said Fair, executive director of the Oil Sands Tailings Consortium and former manager of research and development with Syncrude.
Some of those ideas will be featured in a tailings roadmap study coming out this month. Funded by the government and industry, the study examined more than 500 technologies, Fair said.
Perhaps the biggest development though is the removal of intellectual property barriers to tailings research.
“In the case of environmental-related initiatives, the industry has gotten together and said ‘we’ve got to collaborate’. The CEOs are the ones who have come together and said we have to find a better way to do this,” Fair said.
The better way, it turns out, is the Canadian Oil Sands Innovation Alliance (COSIA). Formed in March 2012, its members include 12 oil sands companies, such as Shell, Suncor, Cenovus, Imperial Oil and Statoil.
Fair’s tailings consortium is one of four priority areas within COSIA. The other three include greenhouse gases, land use and water. The aim is to clean up the tailings together, sharing costs and research.
“We get it loud and clear from our stakeholders that more is expected of us…Issues and concerns have been expressed about the pace of reclamation; we need to accelerate that,” Fair said.
Tailings ponds—which consist mainly of water with roughly 30 percent fine clay sediment and some bitumen—allow the industry to recycle about 85% of the water used to separate bitumen from sand.
But the fine clay material has a difficult time settling. “This is the challenge,” Fair said. “Today there are 850 million cubic metres of this material that has to be managed and somehow reclaimed.”
Suncor has set up drying beds to dewater the fine tailings through evaporation, he said.
For its part, Syncrude is spinning it.
“So rather than relying on the evaporation or drying process, they actually use a centrifuge…so they kind of spin the material and the solids are ejected to the outside and the water goes down the centre.”
Other solutions include accelerated drying, polymer processes and water-caps on the tailings material.
“The oil sands are going to be there for a very long time, likely hundreds of years, so we obviously need that long-term focus,” Fair said. “We need to ensure we develop a stable closure landscape that can be reintegrated into the environment.”
Can it be done? Fair showed a photo of the first tailings pond, known as Syncrude’s “pond 1.” The area, today called Gateway Hills and replete with nature trails, received the Alberta government’s first reclamation certification in the Canadian oil sands industry.
The certification process is lengthy—the area was planted with vegetation in the early 1980s and was certified in 2008 after repeated studies. But for Fair, who’s been in the industry for 33 years, and saw the opening of the first oil sands operation, the certification is a harbinger of what he hopes will be faster, more efficient reclamation of the oil sands landscape.
Alan Fair on what the oil sands mean for Canada [VIDEO]:
Why COSIA was created:
Major players collaborate for environmental research: